The Way We Were: Anita Thompson

The Way We Were: Anita Thompson
College roommate, Gloria Grasman, and Anita Thompson. Gloria’s mother worked at the Shelborne Hotel in Miami Beach. The girls were swimming in the pool when someone from a magazine up north asked if they minded having their picture taken for a story.

A local newspaper once dubbed Anita Thompson as “the Catholic pharmacist.” That’s a very apt descriptor of Thompson’s passion, involvements and accomplishments in the 63 years she has lived in Jacksonville. 

Born in Stuart, Florida, in 1932, her mother, brother Frank and she moved to Key West after World War II started, where, from 1939 to 1945, they lived with her aunt and uncle. Her uncle worked at the naval base on Key West.

Anita graduated in 1954 from the University of Florida with a bachelor’s degree in pharmacy.
Anita graduated in 1954 from the University of Florida with a bachelor’s degree in pharmacy.

“My father was born in Italy. Because he had never applied for and received U.S. citizenship, he was considered an enemy alien during World War II,” Thompson said. “If he had stayed on U.S. soil, he would have been deported, so he joined the Seabees.”

Working as a Seabee kept her father offshore and safe from deportation. Once Italy surrendered, he was able to come back; however, at some point while he was gone, her parents divorced. When the war ended in 1945, her mother moved Frank and her to Miami, where they lived with her grandmother until she graduated from Edison High School. 

Thompson’s father paid for her to attend the University of Florida, from which she graduated with a degree in pharmacy. “He always told me that education is better than an insurance policy.”

Her father didn’t live long after her graduation, however. “He had lung cancer, probably because as a young man he worked in a brake lining factory with asbestos.” By then, her mother had remarried her father to take care of him while he was in the hospital in Savannah, Georgia. 

After college, Thompson found work in Pensacola, and then in Orlando. In 1956 she moved to Jacksonville to work.

“I thought I was going to travel and see the world, but instead I met Harry Thompson, got married and never left,” Thompson said.

Anita Thompson, 5 years old, 1937
Anita Thompson, 5 years old, 1937

Her first job in Jacksonville was at Duval Medical Center, now University of Florida Medical Center, where she worked as a pharmacist. Then she went to work at Baptist Memorial Hospital (now Baptist Medical Center). When she became pregnant, she knew she’d have to quit. 

“A woman couldn’t be pregnant and work in a hospital then, not even nurses,” Thompson said. “My boss didn’t want me to quit because he didn’t have any other pharmacists to take my place, so I bought larger clothes and kept on working until I was six months along.” Michael was born in 1958.

In the meantime, Thompson’s husband, Harry, also a pharmacist, owned and managed College Pharmacy at College and King streets in Riverside. Right after Michael was born, he bought Norwood Pharmacy at Norwood Avenue and Broxton Street. A custom cabinet store is now located where the pharmacy was. 

A Nov. 20, 1960 news story about Anita and the only other two female pharmacists noted that the toughest job for female druggists was overcoming prejudice by male colleagues and the public. Thompson recalled that in the beginning her presence behind the drug counter raised some surprise and concern. 

Anita’s husband, Harry Thompson, owned and managed College Pharmacy at College and King streets across King Street from what is now Kickbacks Gastropub.
Anita’s husband, Harry Thompson, owned and managed College Pharmacy at College and King streets across King Street from what is now Kickbacks Gastropub.

“I recall one nice looking woman who asked if the pharmacist was in. When I told her that I was the pharmacist, she looked horrified and asked if I filled prescriptions. I told her I did,” Thompson was quoted in the article as saying. She said the customer then demanded, “Do you mean that you are going to fill MY prescription?”

All three female pharmacists in the story had married pharmacists – Anita to Harry Thompson; Jean to Clifford Lancaster; and Thelma to Bill Berry. Jean and Thelma were pharmacists at the Beaches. Anita was the manager and pharmacist for Norwood Pharmacy until Wes was born in 1961 and they sold the pharmacy.

Dr. Paul Witten, long-time Jacksonville dentist who first graduated in pharmacy; Jeannie Feiles, Tampa; Dean Harry Foote who taught them while they were all attending University of Florida; a man who Anita doesn’t remember, and Anita at their 50th year reunion.
Dr. Paul Witten, long-time Jacksonville dentist who first graduated in pharmacy; Jeannie Feiles, Tampa; Dean Harry Foote who taught them while they were all attending University of Florida; a man who Anita doesn’t remember, and Anita at their 50th year reunion.

“While I was still in the hospital after just giving birth, Harry brought me a notebook showing me the next pharmacy he wanted to buy, Thompson Pharmacy on Beach Boulevard,” Thompson said. “I told him I couldn’t work; I just had a baby. He said I didn’t have to work because he had a partner for this pharmacy. Well, that partner lasted two weeks until he found he’d really have to work, and then he quit. So back to work I went.”

Thompson had a maid who looked after Michael and Wes, but when Doug was born 18 months after Wes, the maid quit, and Anita decided to go home to take care of the children. She continued to do bookwork for the pharmacies and, once all three children were in school, she worked one day a week for different pharmacies and filled in for pharmacists when they needed time away. She worked with three regular pharmacies until Michael graduated from high school – Thompson Pharmacy, which Harry had sold in 1962, and two Ossi pharmacies owned by John and Fred Ossi.

When Michael went to college in 1976, Thompson returned to full-time work for Orange Park Hospital (now Orange Park Community Hospital). She was the pharmacist there for 10 years until there was an opening at St. Vincent’s Hospital.

Anita’s and Harry’s sons, Doug, Mike and Wes Thompson
Anita’s and Harry’s sons, Doug, Mike and Wes Thompson

An Aug. 20, 2008 article reported that Thompson found that her values lined up with St. Vincent’s, because both were Catholic, and “she never has to worry about having to dispense birth control and the even more controversial ‘morning-after’ medications.”

After 22 years, Thompson officially retired from St. Vincent’s in 2002, but continued as a PRN for seven more years.

Harry and Anita Thompson first lived in Riverside in a little apartment on West Street, about a block from College Pharmacy. Then they moved to Murray Hill on Post Street where her mother-in-law had a two-unit apartment. When they and their three sons outgrew that, they moved to Forbes Street in Riverside. After Harry died in 1997, Anita found she didn’t want to live there alone, so she moved to Challen Avenue in Avondale. The house was built the same year Anita was born, in 1932.

“We used to never lock house doors except when we went out of town.” Thompson remembered coming home one time and finding a neighborhood kid in the house looking for one of her kids. 

Harry and Anita Thompson, Easter 1967, outside St. Paul’s Catholic Church
Harry and Anita Thompson, Easter 1967, outside St. Paul’s Catholic Church

Michael started school while they were still living on Post Street and attended Ruth N. Upson Elementary School. After they moved, all three boys went to West Riverside Elementary. Wes and Doug attended St. Paul’s Catholic School and Mike went to John Gorrie Junior High School. All three boys graduated from Robert E. Lee High School – Mike in 1976, Wes in 1979 and Doug in 1980.

Thompson was active in PTA for the boys’ schools. All three were patrol boys, and she remembers that they had to raise money to attend an annual summer conference in Washington, D.C. When Mike was at West Riverside, they sold snow cones for a quarter. When he went to St. Paul’s they could have a raffle and sell tickets. “That was a lot easier to raise the $100 needed for each boy to go on the trip,” Thompson said.

Mike and Wes graduated from her alma mater, the University of Florida. Doug joined the Navy. Mike is a systems analyst in Gainesville. Wes graduated in animal science and became head of animal science labs at Emory University. He and his wife decided to come back to Florida where they now administer grants and manage rental property. Doug works for Duval County Public Schools.

Thompson remembers a six-year period of time in the late 1970s and ‘80s when she was always president of something – Duval County Pharmacy Association, PTA, St. Paul’s Catholic Church Guild, deanery of the Catholic Church Women and Council of Catholic Women for the Diocese. She still is on the board of the Duval County Pharmacy Association and the Diocesan Council of Catholic Women. She is also working on St. Paul’s history in anticipation of its 100th anniversary in 2024. When the Florida Council of Catholic Women celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2018, she wrote its history as well.

Harry and Anita Thompson at a St. Vincent’s Hospital holiday party in 1993
Harry and Anita Thompson at a St. Vincent’s Hospital holiday party in 1993

One of her favorite stories is when she and Wes attended the 2006 Fiesta Bowl. Despite being a season ticket holder and alumna, after they had booked their tickets on the plane that the Gators had rented, Anita found out that she wasn’t going to be able to get tickets to the game. She asked the doctors at St. Vincent’s to tell her if they had sick patients with tickets who wouldn’t be able to go. She asked everyone to pray for her. Her neighbor went to the monastery to light candles for her. But still no tickets.

Thompson and her son decided to fly on the Gator plane anyway and see if they could buy tickets at the game. They walked over to the parking lot and found tickets were going for $3,000 each. As they stood there, a woman in a Fiesta Bowl jacket leading a bunch of people into the game walked up to Anita and asked if she was looking for tickets to the game. Anita said, “Yes, ma’am.” The woman reached into her briefcase, handed her two tickets and said, “Enjoy the game.”

The tickets were on the 33-yard line in the club seat section in the first row. “It was all due to those prayers,” Thompson said.

When she got back to Jacksonville after the game, her pastor asked her, “What did that woman see in you that made her want to come over to you?” 

“It was probably my wings,” Thompson joked. Her pastor said, “Well, you keep them well-hidden!”

“I took what I thought was an adequate amount of money to the game to buy the tickets and promised I would give whatever was left over to the church,” Thompson said. And, she did.

Now 87 years old, the former pharmacist still follows her passions – family, faith and pharmacy.

By Karen J. Rieley
Resident Community News

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